Sunday, 14th July 2024

Religious Freedom East and West

Posted on 05. Jun, 2011 in Carousel

On Thursday, 2 June 2o11, the evening before a conference to mark the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Fr Ragheed Ganni, conference participants and friends of Fr Ragheed participated in a powerful commemorative tribute. This moving time of prayer took the form of a procession through the streets of Rome, to the Church of Saint Bartholomew on Tiber Island. The procession was seen off from the steps of the Irish College by Fr Ragheed’s mother, and was led by his father, who carried Ragheed’s priestly stole.

During the Millenium Jubliee year, Saint Bartholomew’s of Tiber Island was entrusted by Pope John Paul II with the task of commemorating the martyrs of the twentieth century and the new millennium. Accordingly, it was chosen as the destination for Fr Ragheed’s stole, the symbol of his fidelity to his priesthood, a fidelity for which he paid with his life.

About fifty people took part in the procession, including Emil Shimoun Nona, Archbishop of Mosul, the city in which Ragheed served as a priest and, on 3 June, 2007, witnessed to the Gospel with his life.

After the opening prayers and hymn at the steps of the Irish College, the procession made its way towards the Tiber. The route included three pauses for prayer, the first of which had a particular symbolic value, being close to the Colosseum, a place where some of the Church’s earliest martyrs shed their blood rather than turn away from the Gospel. Two further pauses for prayer were made along the Circus Maximus.

During each pause, some of the circumstances of Fr Ragheed’s death were recalled, and these recollections were followed by Scripture readings which laid the foundation for the Christian understanding of martyrdom: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials…” “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer…” A long litany of martyrs was sung as the procession made its way along the Circus Maximus, and during the final pause, members of the Chaldean Catholic community (including Iraqi priests currently living in the Irish College) prayed the Our Father in Aramaic.

The procession was met outside the Church of Saint Bartholomew by members of the San Egidio Community, who had organized a beautiful sung Vespers. During this liturgy, Archbishop Emil reflected on the life and witness of Fr Ragheed, and Ragheed’s parents solemnly presented their son’s priestly stole. The liturgy concluded with a procession, during which the stole was taken to an altar where it will be treasured as a symbol of faithful priestly service and courageous witness to Christ.

On the following day Irish College hosted a conference entitled Religious Freedon East & West in memory of Father Ragheed Ganni on the fourth anniversary of his death, in the presence of Father Ragheed’s parents and the President of Ireland, H.E. Mrs Mary McAleese.  Fr Ragheed Ganni (1972 – 2007). Ragheed, an engineering graduate from the University of Mosul, Iraq, was a student at the Irish College from 1996 – 2003. Following the completion of post-graduate studies at the Angelicum, he returned to Mosul.  Despite death threats, and attacks, Ragheed insisted that he stay in Mosul to minister to his fellow Chaldean Catholics.  He was murdered together with three sub-deacons as he emerged from celebrating Mass on 3 June 2007

Conference Programme

15.30    Welcome and Opening:

Monsignor Liam Bergin, Rector Pontifical Irish College

15.40     “The ambiguities of religious freedom: a Jewish perspective”

Chair:              H.E. Patrick Hennessy,  Ambassador of Ireland to Italy

Lecture:          Rabbi David Meyer, Brussels

16.20      “Christianity and Religious Freedom in  a Secular World”

Chair:             Mr Dermot McCarthy, Secretary General to the Government of Ireland

Lecture:          Mr David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute and commentator

17.00    Break

17.30   “Christianity and Religious Freedom in an Islamic context”

Chair:             S.E.R. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue

Lecture:          Fr Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, Pontifical Oriental Institute Rome

18.15    “Religious Freedom East and West”

Introduction: H.E. Noel Fahey, Ambassador of Ireland to the Holy See

Address:          H.E. Mrs Mary McAleese, President of Ireland

18.45   Vespers in the College Chapel

Homily:         H.E. Emil Shimoun Nona,  Archbishop of Mosul

Remarks by President McAleese at a conference on ‘Religious Freedom, East and West’, Pontifical Irish College, Rome, 3rd June 2011

Dia dhíbh a chairde, thank you for your welcome. It’s a real pleasure to be back in the beautiful Irish College and an honour to speak at this Conference on ‘Religious Freedom East and West’. I would like to thank the College and Monsignor Liam Bergin for inviting me here today to contribute to the discussion on this important issue.

The venue for conference is not isolated from its subject. The Irish College in Rome, like many others throughout continental Europe, was founded at a time of religious persecution in Ireland. Regrettably, those doing the persecuting were themselves acting in the name of religion and in the name of a Christian denomination. Historically it has been and remains a common phenomenon that the religious freedom of adherents of one faith or denomination is often most threatened by the aggressive proselytism or contempt of another. Few faith systems come to the debate with clean hands. Similarly, there are anti-faith systems and anti religious movements which have fought and continue to fight for freedom from religion in ways that are a reprehensible negation of fundamental human rights.

For this College’s first century and beyond, its students were those who faced danger and experienced death from religious based, anti-Catholic persecution in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Ireland. So this place is well qualified through painful experience to host a discussion on religious freedom. The restoration of freedom and religious rights to Catholics in Ireland, especially from the 19th century onwards, gave the College a new momentum so that today it retains its strong link to Ireland but is also host to students from all over the world. Many of them sadly are from countries where religious freedom is still a dream, its absence still a nightmare. Their presence here continues the significant contribution not just to religious freedom, but to human dignity and human freedom that the Irish Catholic Church has made around the world.

Today’s conference is dedicated to the memory of one such student Father Ragheed Ganni who, along with three sub-deacons, was murdered in Northern Iraq shortly after celebrating Mass. Those of us blessed to have known Ragheed know of his love of life, his fearlessness and courage in returning to minister to Mosul’s Chaldean Catholics despite chilling death threats. I met him first many years ago in the unlikely environs of Lough Derg where I was not really expecting to meet up with a Catholic priest from Iraq.

He enjoyed being the source of such a surprise. We wrote to each other and met up again here in the Irish College before he returned home to Iraq. He spoke then of the call of home and the call of the Gospel that he could not ignore despite having much safer alternatives. It was here too that I heard the awful news of his martyrdom. Ragheed said ‘Christ challenges evil with his infinite love.’ We spoke several times of our shared belief in the miraculous capacity of the human heart to soften and to change and of the role of love in “taking away the heart of stone” to quote Donal Dorr. It was that belief that brought Ragheed back to a life of service in Iraq and his belief in his right to exercise his freedom of religion, his freedom to love.

Freedom of religion or belief is a critical component of the ideal of freedom as a whole. The ideal of freedom underpins the dignity of humankind. It is the cornerstone of justice, equality, democracy – of the just society. It is no accident, however, that the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when setting out his vision of a non-racial society in his historic speech in Washington D.C. in 1963, rooted his passionate appeal in the evocation of religious belief and belief in a future ‘when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands’ and be in his words and the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

King’s powerful image reflects his understanding that the freedom of any one group of people is inextricably bound with the freedom of all those around them. It is striking that this notion, so strongly associated with the Civil Rights Movement in America, echoes the words of the scriptures to do ‘unto others as you would want them to do unto you’ (Matthew 7:12). This ‘Golden Rule’, or the ethic of reciprocity, calls upon us to treat others as we would want to be treated. It is found in all the great faith systems and it is the cornerstone of the modern concept of human rights.

Over 60 years ago, for the first time in human history the world’s nations agreed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that laid down the fundamental, indivisible and inalienable rights of all human persons. It came into effect not least because of the colossal and cruel bloodletting of the Second World War and, in particular, the appalling Holocaust visited upon European Jews which had highlighted so graphically the need to protect individuals from persecution for, among other things, their adherence to a particular religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration did just that and this well established provision is worth recalling:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Even today, as we reflect upon the concept of religious freedom, this provision remains the touchstone of our considerations. The freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief applies equally to all persons. It is a fundamental freedom which includes all religions or beliefs, including those that have not been traditionally practised in a particular country, the beliefs of persons who belong to religious minorities, as well as non-theistic and atheistic beliefs. The freedom also covers the right to adopt, change or abandon one’s religion or belief of one’s own free will. Freedom of conscience and freedom to disagree are as much part of the architecture of human rights as freedom of religion. They are part of the whole.

It is an unfortunate reality that religious intolerance continues to pose a problem, North, South, East and West and very few parts of the world can claim to be exempt from the scourge of religious intolerance. There are plenty of current examples of political turmoil, exacerbated by religious tensions, and sadly we continue to see around the world many examples of intolerance and discrimination against worshipers and their places of worship. It is particularly tragic that the worst offenders are often themselves people of strong religious views. In a world growing cold to the idea of religion, they do religious belief the most serious disservice. Worse still, they fail to fully realize who their true friends could be in this world if only they could see beyond the relatively minor differences to the vast shared landscape of values and principles.

All these centuries later, religious freedom is as topical as when this College was founded. It is never far from the news headlines or political agendas and consumes a lot of attention at international fora such as the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the Council of Europe. In February of this year, the European Union reaffirmed its strong commitment to the promotion and protection of religion or belief without any discrimination. In these Conclusions, the Union expressed its profound concern about the increasing number of acts of religious intolerance – epitomised by recent violence and acts of terrorism, in various countries, against Christians and their places of worship, against Muslim pilgrims and against other religions communities.

Ireland has a long experience of the appalling consequences of religious bigotry and it is no accident that the great 19th century Liberator Daniel O’Connell, whose heart is buried in this very College, became the champion not simply of religious freedom for Catholics in Ireland and in the British Empire, but for Methodists, for Presbyterians too, for Jews in Russia and more broadly for the civic freedom of Afro-American slaves. His legacy and our baleful experience have given us a contemporary narrative of promoting religious tolerance as part of our understanding of human freedom in general.

You can be sure that Ireland will continue to work for the eradication of all forms of religious intolerance at both the international and national levels. It is a longstanding commitment echoed in the 18th century vision of Wolfe Tone for an Ireland where “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter” would be equal. Later the words of the Proclamation of 1916 which marked the start of Irish independence stated “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty.” Later still, our Constitution guaranteed to every citizen freedom of conscience and free profession and practice of religion. (Article 44.2.1.Bunreacht na hEireann.) Indeed, that same Constitution written in 1937 specifically mentioned recognition of the Jewish faith – an acknowledgement that was not without significance in the Europe of the 1930s.

Discrimination and violence on the grounds of religion or belief continue to be at the heart of many local, regional, national and international conflicts which are – or are perceived to be – based at least in part on religious issues, often intertwined with particular ethnic, national, political or historical contexts. They make life miserable.

They make the home, the street, the community, the country places of unconscionable instability and fear. Today, our thoughts are with those who are paying such a high price for their conscientious beliefs.

Fr Ganni’s own Chaldean community in Iraq like other Christian churches in the Middle East, has a history that stretches back to the time of the apostles. We hope and pray that they will soon be allowed to resume living in peace with their Muslim neighbours as they have done for centuries. Adherents to other faiths also suffer for their beliefs – I think, for example, of the Baha’i communities who continue to suffer persecution and, in at least one country, the very legitimacy of their religion is denied.

It is deeply unsettling that a faith with such principles as the unity of humankind and the elimination of all forms of prejudice would attract, in any shape or form, violence from others. That great Irish peacemaker, John Hume, said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo in 1998, that ‘all conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality.’ I might add, and from direct experience, that all conflict is about refusal to accept difference. The misery of that reality was visited on generations in Ireland and, in particular, in Northern Ireland where the demonization of neighbour by neighbour along sectarian lines was underpinned by a culture of non-acceptance of each other’s right to believe and behave differently.

I tell the story of Northern Ireland as I believe that this story carries an important message. Although religion was not the only badge of identity which divided communities in Northern Ireland, it was a major fault-line of division. Neighbours lived cheek by jowl in dangerous ignorance of one another, an ignorance that only began to disappear when they engaged in structured dialogue and began to explore the idea of a world where there was parity of esteem. The new political dispensation in Northern Ireland is now consolidating very successfully and is underpinned by a formidable infrastructure of rights-based legislation, designed to vindicate the dignity and equality of all citizens. It has already proved itself to be reassuringly stabilizing for all sectors of the community in ways that decades of chaotic inequality and imbalance were not.

With freedom and with rights comes responsibility and duty for the ethic of reciprocity insists that, while each individual has a right to just treatment, he or she must respect the equal right of his neighbour. This balancing of rights and responsibilities trammels the extent to which we can freely exercise freedom of speech or freedom of action – for there can be no freedom which permits us to incite hatred, to promote violence, to provoke intolerance, to practice discrimination since to do so would rob others of their right to the quiet enjoyment of their fundamental freedoms. The restrictions we experience in relation to freedom of expression must of course be proportionate and prescribed by law, and should not go beyond what is absolutely necessary in a democratic society – but they remind us powerfully of the bold yet subtle line between freedom and licence.

Despite our past political and religious conflicts, Ireland has emerged as a country, a family, which is at once, Catholic, Protestant, agnostic, atheist, Islamic, Jewish… in fact a welcoming homeland for people of all faiths and of none, where no-one is exalted above another but all are “children of the nation” to be “cherished equally”, in the powerful words of the Proclamation of 1916. It is a homeland indebted to a long, fascinating and complex Christian heritage. The coming centuries will see it indebted to an increasingly multi-faith heritage already in the making. It is a homeland which has made considerable strides in its understanding of the rights of groups which have historically experienced repressive attitudes – among them women, homosexuals, travellers and those with disability. It is a homeland with a long and sometimes unhappy experience of outward migration that it is using to ensure that the immigrants to our country are made welcome and helped to integrate so that they do not live among us as strangers but as friends.

We have the example of St. Patrick our most famous immigrant whose story richly illustrates the human potential we can either encourage or destroy, depending entirely on the attitudes we adopt to the dignity of the otherness of other human beings.

Over the past several years, successive Irish Governments have encouraged constructive dialogue between the State and the religious or faith communities. The voices of the latter are a vital part of civic discourse and it is important to recognize at the highest level the link between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression and opinion. The building of pluralistic and democratic societies relies on creating an enabling space or spaces within which respectful, purposeful, intercultural and interreligious dialogue can take place. It is only when we have engaged in such a dialogue ourselves that we may call ourselves guardians and champions of freedom, who have truly responded to the great commandment to love all of creation and not simply those who are mirror images of ourselves.

Fr. Ganni lived in a world where hatred always threatened to overwhelm love. That hatred took his life – obliterated it but it did not obliterate love, nor did it nor could it ever obliterate his legacy. That legacy is an enduring certainty that the greatest challenge to evil is infinite love; that love in the face of hatred is, in the end, the only thing capable of softening the hardened heart, stirring conscience and reconciling the estranged. In our homes, on our streets and in our parliaments there is no greater way to disarm hatred and to disenfranchise those who incite intolerance than by creating micro and macro societies where mutual respect, understanding and equality prevail no matter what. That witness to love in action, to love even in chaos, disturbs the hearts of those who would hate and lights the pathway that they would prefer had no roadmap, no signposts to the fullest flowering of human potential – a world that cherishes all its children equally. There is no mystery – the bitter word hardens hearts. The loving, respectful word softens them. Freedom, including religious freedom is about taking us to a safer world of softened hearts.

Before I conclude I wish to say a sincere thank you to two good friends who are due to leave Rome in the near future. I am sure the last thing an Ambassador who is trying to pack his suit-cases needs is his Head of State coming to town. I understand that Ambassador Fahey will take his leave of the Eternal City 24 hours after we depart. Despite this, Noel Fahey has again welcomed us with his customary warmth and professionalism. I want to thank him for his distinguished record of public service to the State, including as Ambassador to Berlin and Washington, and to wish Noel and Christine every happiness and fulfilment in their future post-diplomatic life. Now that Noel will back in Ireland, Roscommon’s chances in the All-Ireland are surely enhanced.

Later this summer, Monsignor Bergin departs the Irish College to take up a new academic post in Boston. The Irish College’s sad loss will indeed be Boston College’s happy gain. Boston is, of course, a very Irish city but it also has a strong Italian ethos – with Mayor Menino and a neighbourhood called the North End replete with great Italian cuisine. This might ease the withdrawal symptoms. I want to congratulate Liam for everything he has achieved at the Irish College, for being such a good ecclesial ambassador for Ireland and to thank him for the friendship and welcome that he has extended to me, Martin and our family over the years.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.